About three times a day, the campers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos walk past a mural.
The words, “You can’t fulfill your dreams unless you dare to risk it all” are painted across it in black lettering. The mural depicts two soldiers on a hilltop along with an Israeli flag waving on another hilltop.
The mural is the perfect place for Rabbi Joel Seltzer to tell the story of Michael Levin, a lone soldier killed in the line of duty in 2006, whose memory survives at the camp he spent much of his childhood exploring.
Seltzer has served as the camp’s executive director for the past seven years, but first met 14-year-old Michael Levin in 1998.
Growing up in Holland, Pennsylvania, Michael Levin was the son of Harriet Levin, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, and Mark Levin, the son of a decorated World War II soldier.
Despite being small in size, Michael Levin was a voracious hockey player. Seltzer remembers him being a legend on the rink. He got the nickname “Termite” “because he was very small and could do a lot of damage, including some broken fluorescent bulbs in our bunks through the years,” Seltzer said.
When he was a teenager, Michael Levin decided he wanted to move to Israel and enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. Eventually, he made aliyah and joined as a paratrooper. Having no family in Israel, he was known by the IDF term lone soldier.
“I always say that Michael was fiercely loyal. He was one of those loyal kids. Everything he did was for the sake of his friends and even sometimes for his counselors, too,” Seltzer said. “And he always had this sense of beauty and responsibility that ran through him.”
When the Second Lebanon War broke out, the 22-year-old was sent into combat. He was killed during a firefight in Aita-Al-Shaab, Lebanon, on Aug. 1, 2006 — the only American to perish in that conflict. He was laid to rest in Jerusalem at Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery. By war’s end, 121 IDF soldiers had been killed and 1,244 wounded.
Recently, Levin’s mother, Harriet, 68, of Langhorne, got the chance to volunteer for a week at Ramah, where her son had spent so much meaningful time.
“I absolutely love Ramah, what it stands for,” Harriet Levin said. “The basis of Judaism is all there, so I love it. And it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
From July 7 to 14, she assisted in the camp’s office, assembled goody bags for parents on visiting day and interacted with campers at the arts and crafts center.
“Just wherever they need me,” she said about volunteering. “The only thing challenging is walking up the hills.”
Numerous campers and staff familiar with her son’s story approached her, including two staffers who were lone soldiers themselves. In 2009, the Lone Soldier Center was founded by Michael Levin’s parents and friends in his memory to support the social and physical needs of the roughly 7,000 lone soldiers. The two Ramah staffers thanked Harriet Levin for the center’s help with food and housing.
Andi Flug Wolfer is the executive director of the U.S. Supporters of the Lone Soldier Center. She said the center serves as a home away from home for lone soldiers, providing food, basic necessities, laundry services, social events, mental health counseling and housing. Michael Levin’s story is what put the term lone soldier on the map and helped raise awareness for them, Flug Wolfer said.
“[Michael Levin was] a boy next door who had Zionism running through his blood, and his story just really resonated with people,” Flug Wolfer said. “I don’t think most lone soldiers like to consider themselves heroes, but when you give up the comforts of your own home and voluntarily go to serve in the Israeli army, it is really something of a heroic measure.”
Harriet Levin’s trip to camp was an opportunity to spend time with her daughter Elisa and two granddaughters, ages 4 and 7. She helped them and other campers make friendship bracelets.
“I just want to give back. Camp gave all three of my kids an incredible Jewish foundation. I just want to be able to give back a little,” she said. “You know what, if they let me come back, I will be more than happy to. It’s a great environment up here.”
Michael Levin’s story has spread far and wide since his passing, especially with the help of a 2007 documentary titled A Hero in Heaven, which is frequently screened at summer camps.
“One of the most meaningful moments is when these young Israelis come up in tears and say, ‘You have no idea how meaningful it is for me, being at a camp where Michael Levin grew up,’” Seltzer said. “And they have tears in their eyes and I have tears in my eyes, so I’m really moved, as I know the Levin family is also, that Michael’s story is now on the pages of the history books of the state of Israel.”
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